Cape Town – Ovayo Zilo says the only Afrikaans she knows is how to greet. “I barely understand the language. The only word I know is môre, because they say that every morning,” she said.
She was one of dozens of students who took part in the protests at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch since Monday against the university’s language policy and alleged rampant racism at the institution.
Deciphering what is being taught during Afrikaans lectures is a mission, Zilo said.
“I am completely lost – I am unable to engage at all,” she said.
“I spend such a lot of time trying to make sense of what was discussed. The lessons are not translated – part is given in Afrikaans, the other in English. Combining the two is impossible if you don’t understand the half of it.”
Calm was restored at the institution on Thursday after students and institution management met on Wednesday to reach a compromise.
It was agreed that separate lessons will be conducted in both English and Afrikaans and students can decide which lesson they choose to attend.
English tutors will be available to assist those who missed out on classes during the protests, in which some students demanded lessons be given in English only.
On Wednesday, before the agreement was reached between protesters and the institution, an upset student told News24 he preferred to “figure things out” on his own as Afrikaans is foreign to him.
“I am not English. At home, I speak isiXhosa. But what upset me is that English is a universal language which all of us understand. Why are we being alienated with Afrikaans?”
The university’s 50-50 language policy means that most black students understand lessons only 50% of the time, student Liphelo Mpumlwana said.
She is part of the leadership of Decolonise EIC, which led the protests.
There are black students who opted to drop out because of the language barrier, she said.
“Some can’t cope with the pressure of being taught in a language they don’t understand.”
But Afrikaans students say black students should have considered this before applying to Elsenburg.
“This school is marketed as an Afrikaans institution,” one student said.
“It is in an Afrikaans town. If you are against Afrikaans, why enrol here in the first place?”
He described the protests as “a dumb way of getting what you want”.
“Instead of interrupting everyone else who came here to learn, they should simply have taken their issues to management. That way our precious class time wouldn’t have been disrupted.”
New language policy
But another Afrikaans student said he understood the group’s frustration.
“I would probably feel exactly the same if classes were given in isiXhosa,” he said.
“However, I feel that non-Afrikaans speakers should have known what was waiting when they applied here. It’s not as if Afrikaans classes were introduced yesterday.”
The college falls under the Western Cape Department of Agriculture.
Its spokesperson Petro van Rhyn said a task team, instituted by the College Council, will engage students and role-players to facilitate the development of a new language policy.
“Independent mediators, which have been on site for three weeks, will continue to facilitate the transformation process, diversity management training and conflict resolution involving students, lecturers and administrative personnel,” she said.
Mpumlwana said while Decolonise EIC has reached a compromise with management, the language hurdle is one of many which need to be overcome.
Being a black student at Elsenburg is anything but easy, she said, adding that the group plans to continue engaging on issues surrounding transformation.
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